As Susan Main made the rounds at a party in her honor, she flung her arms out wide to hug each person she saw.
With more than two decades working on behalf of children in Jacksonville, Main had a lot of hugs to give to the dozens of non-profit leaders, board members and staff who came to send her off in style.
“Everybody just loves Susan,” said Toni Crawford, a children’s advocate who has worked alongside Main. “She’s a pretty incredible person and she’s done an incredible job. … She actually put early learning on the map in Duval County.”
After nearly 17 years as the first president and CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Duval, Main will retire on Aug. 18. Three days later, Denise Marzullo will take over. The CEO of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida was named last week as the successor to Main.
“The timing is good for me to early learn myself into grandmother-hood,” Main said, noting that her second grandchild is on the way. “I’m going to use my skill set there for the time being.”
During Main’s tenure, the coalition and early learning as a whole have undergone significant changes. When Main became the head of the then-Duval School Readiness Coalition in 2000 following the state’s school readiness act, she was the only paid staffer and worked from home because there was no office space. Main would visit early learning centers and see kids planted in front of televisions with few toys to be seen.
“Things just weren’t the way they needed to be,” Main said. “And we’ve just really come so far. I couldn’t be prouder of where we are.”
Today, the coalition has three locations around the county, 85 staff members and a $51 million budget. Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to offer every child in the state free, voluntary pre-kindergarten and the coalition gained the name it has today. With Main at the helm, the coalition has created a quality improvement and rating system, Guiding Stars, for area child-care centers that has been embraced by a number of agencies, including the United Way, Jax Journey, Duval Schools and Family Support Services.
Main said it’s about making sure parents are able to make informed choices about the quality they want for their children.
“We want them to know their child is safe and in a good place,” she said. “That’s what I want to do for mothers and fathers who are leaving their child in care.”
Main’s peers agree that because of her tireless passion, she’s put early learning on the map, not only in Duval County, but statewide.
At her retirement party in June, Executive Director of the Office of Early Learning Rodney MacKinnon said Main was one of the first people he reached out to for guidance when he took his current role in 2014.
“She’s made me a much better director,” MacKinnon said, joking that Main was never shy about offering “well-deserved criticism.”
Michelle Braun, CEO of the United Way of Northeast Florida, said one of the “magical” things about Main is her ability to make early learning — a topic that could be explained in terms of neuroscience and complex brain development — understandable and relatable.
“She’s got a lot to say and a lot to do and she’s all about getting it done,” Braun said. “She’s one of those people who has head and heart, but strategy and action.”
Jennifer Chapman, the coalition’s board chair, remembered a specific visit to a child care center on Jacksonville’s North Side where former Mayor Alvin Brown and Gov. Rick Scott were both in attendance.
“Talk about people who don’t align ideologically,” Chapman said. “But what Susan was able to do was make it about the kids.”
The Jacksonville Children’s Coalition honored Main for her career’s work with its second-annual Mayor Ed Austin Children’s Champion Award in June. Commission CEO Jon Heymann said she always had unparalleled energy and “a good heart for a good cause.”
“Knowing Susan, she could have done a lot of things in her life, and for her to begin the Early Learning Coalition of Duval and take it to what it is, that takes new-believer fever,” Heymann said.
Among those who have worked with Main the longest and the closest, she’s known as a nurturing leader who has helped her people grow and succeed.
“She’s got this infectious spirit about her,” said Kendra King, coalition director of human resources, who has worked with Main since she was the executive director at Big Brothers Big Sisters in the 1990s. “She makes all of her staff feel important, like we’re a big family here. She’s very much an encourager. … She leaves a positive impact on pretty much anybody she comes into contact with.”
Padma Rajan, coalition vice president of programs, research and evaluation, said the staff have told Main that, “Susan is our ‘guiding star.’”
“What she’s done for the community and the state will impact generations,” Rajan said. “It’s not easy to garner the will of everybody, but I think she has.”
Tessa Duvall: (904) 359-4697